Which of the following are the three most important thematic statements for A Separate Peace?
a. A just individual has obligations toward society.
b. A just society has obligations it owes to an individual.
c. Individual freedom is limited by __________________. (fill in)
d. An individual can develop methods for judging right from wrong.
e. __________________ (fill in) kind of government is effective.
f. Society must contend with the dichotomies presented by freedom and equality.
g. An individual can experience redemption through ________________. (fill in)
h. A society can experience redemption through ___________________. (fill in)
i. The accumulation of money and power leads to a loss of spirituality.
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Given how profound Knowles's work is, you can find many of the thematic statements to apply to A Separate Peace. I believe that one such statement is seen in how individual freedom is limited by one's own negativity (c). While Gene and Finny are best friends, it is evident that Gene's own propensity for negativity is what limits him. He recognizes this himself when he acknowledges that something inside him, within him, almost subverts his ability to embrace that which is positive. Consider this feeling of distance in his own being as representative of Gene's condition of negativity, one that prevents complete immersion into anything larger than himself: “I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me.” Gene's own negative condition, a state of being that prevents full embrace of anything transcendent, is shown to limit his own freedom, acting out of his own free will. He does not deliberately seek to undermine Finny and set in chain the events which will inevitably cause his death. Rather, he loves Finny and does want to be a fully active member of the world around him. However, he cannot overcome "the dark side" that comprises some aspect of his identity. His own negativity is what causes Finny's death. This negative condition is what influences his freedom. Finny's death ends up releasing Gene from such a condition.
Through the character of Gene, it becomes clear that an individual can experience redemption out of sadness (g). Finny's death, the events that led up to it, and Gene's own role in these are sources of complete sadness. They compel him to realize that his own penchant for destructiveness can lead beyond himself. Redemption is evident in how Gene processes Finny's death. This is seen in how Gene does not seek vengeance from Brinker in his role in the trial, and how he releases himself from the pain of self- hate and anger. Even in the mere act of revisiting the school, in particular the stairs and the tree, shows how Gene has found redemption through the sadness of Finny's death. The reflective tone with which Gene narrates is reflective of how individuals can be reclaimed out of sadness:
Looking back now across fifteen years I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.
The "looking back" on critical aspects of one's being as they mature reflects how individuals can experience redemption through sad events. They do not necessarily define an end, as much as they can trigger redemption through a new beginning. Gene experiences this.
I would suggest that the novel embraces the theme that an individual can develop methods for judging right from wrong (d). Gene develops this. Part of Gene's redemption lies in understanding why he did what he did. When Gene contends that he could not cry at Finny's funeral because a part of him was buried when Finny was, it represents how Gene does judge that which is right from what is wrong. Gene understands how his own actions were wrong and how he needed to free himself of anger, envy, and self- hate. In identifying a more universal condition in which he is a part, Gene develops the criteria to understand that which is right from that which is wrong. It is an essential aspect to his development and is essential to the novel's thematic structure. Gene's understanding at the end of the novel reflects that he grasps the concept of right and wrong as a result of his experiences: "Because it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.” Such a statement reflects how experiences can enable the individual to judge right from wrong, to understand what should be done and serve as an agent of transformation.
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